My travels to Alaska - middle trip


We arrived at Wrangell July 14, and after a short stop of a few hours

went on to Sitka and returned on the 20th to Wrangell, the most

inhospitable place at first sight I had ever seen. The little steamer

that had been my home in the wonderful trip through the archipelago,

after taking the mail, departed on her return to Portland, and as I

watched her gliding out of sight in the dismal blurring rain, I felt

strangely lonesome. The friend that had accompanied me thus far now

left for his home in San Francisco, with two other interesting

travelers who had made the trip for health and scenery, while my fellow

passengers, the missionaries, went direct to the Presbyterian home in

the old fort. There was nothing like a tavern or lodging-house in the

village, nor could I find any place in the stumpy, rocky, boggy ground

about it that looked dry enough to camp on until I could find a way

into the wilderness to begin my studies. Every place within a mile or

two of the town seemed strangely shelterless and inhospitable, for all

the trees had long ago been felled for building-timber and firewood. At

the worst, I thought, I could build a bark hut on a hill back of the

village, where something like a forest loomed dimly through the

draggled clouds.

I had already seen some of the high glacier-bearing mountains in

distant views from the steamer, and was anxious to reach them. A few

whites of the village, with whom I entered into conversation, warned me

that the Indians were a bad lot, not to be trusted, that the woods were

well-nigh impenetrable, and that I could go nowhere without a canoe. On

the other hand, these natural difficulties made the grand wild country

all the more attractive, and I determined to get into the heart of it

somehow or other with a bag of hardtack, trusting to my usual good

luck. My present difficulty was in finding a first base camp. My only

hope was on the hill. When I was strolling past the old fort I happened

to meet one of the missionaries, who kindly asked me where I was going

to take up my quarters.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I have not been able to find quarters of

any sort. The top of that little hill over there seems the only

possible place.”

He then explained that every room in the mission house was full, but he

thought I might obtain leave to spread my blanket in a carpenter-shop

belonging to the mission. Thanking him, I ran down to the sloppy wharf

for my little bundle of baggage, laid it on the shop floor, and felt

glad and snug among the dry, sweet-smelling shavings.

The carpenter was at work on a new Presbyterian mission building, and

when he came in I explained that Dr. Jackson[1] had suggested that I

might be allowed to sleep on the floor, and after I assured him that I

would not touch his tools or be in his way, he goodnaturedly gave me

the freedom of the shop and also of his small private side room where I

would find a wash-basin.

I was here only one night, however, for Mr. Vanderbilt, a merchant, who

with his family occupied the best house in the fort, hearing that one

of the late arrivals, whose business none seemed to know, was compelled

to sleep in the carpenter-shop, paid me a good-Samaritan visit and

after a few explanatory words on my glacier and forest studies, with

fine hospitality offered me a room and a place at his table. Here I

found a real home, with freedom to go on all sorts of excursions as

opportunity offered. Annie Vanderbilt, a little doctor of divinity two

years old, ruled the household with love sermons and kept it warm.

Mr. Vanderbilt introduced me to prospectors and traders and some of the

most influential of the Indians. I visited the mission school and the

home for Indian girls kept by Mrs. MacFarland, and made short

excursions to the nearby forests and streams, and studied the rate of

growth of the different species of trees and their age, counting the

annual rings on stumps in the large clearings made by the military when

the fort was occupied, causing wondering speculation among the Wrangell

folk, as was reported by Mr. Vanderbilt.

“What can the fellow be up to?” they inquired. “He seems to spend most

of his time among stumps and weeds. I saw him the other day on his

knees, looking at a stump as if he expected to find gold in it. He

seems to have no serious object whatever.”

One night when a heavy rainstorm was blowing I unwittingly caused a lot

of wondering excitement among the whites as well as the superstitious

Indians. Being anxious to see how the Alaska trees behave in storms and

hear the songs they sing, I stole quietly away through the gray

drenching blast to the hill back of the town, without being observed.

Night was falling when I set out and it was pitch dark when I reached

the top. The glad, rejoicing storm in glorious voice was singing

through the woods, noble compensation for mere body discomfort. But I

wanted a fire, a big one, to see as well as hear how the storm and

trees were behaving. After long, patient groping I found a little dry

punk in a hollow trunk and carefully stored it beside my matchbox and

an inch or two of candle in an inside pocket that the rain had not yet

reached; then, wiping some dead twigs and whittling them into thin

shavings, stored them with the punk. I then made a little conical bark

hut about a foot high, and, carefully leaning over it and sheltering it

as much as possible from the driving rain, I wiped and stored a lot of

dead twigs, lighted the candle, and set it in the hut, carefully added

pinches of punk and shavings, and at length got a little blaze, by the

light of which I gradually added larger shavings, then twigs all set on

end astride the inner flame, making the little hut higher and wider.

Soon I had light enough to enable me to select the best dead branches

and large sections of bark, which were set on end, gradually increasing

the height and corresponding light of the hut fire. A considerable area

was thus well lighted, from which I gathered abundance of wood, and

kept adding to the fire until it had a strong, hot heart and sent up a

pillar of flame thirty or forty feet high, illuminating a wide circle

in spite of the rain, and casting a red glare into the flying clouds.

Of all the thousands of camp-fires I have elsewhere built none was just

like this one, rejoicing in triumphant strength and beauty in the heart

of the rain-laden gale. It was wonderful,—the illumined rain and clouds

mingled together and the trees glowing against the jet background, the

colors of the mossy, lichened trunks with sparkling streams pouring

down the furrows of the bark, and the gray-bearded old patriarchs

bowing low and chanting in passionate worship!

My fire was in all its glory about midnight, and, having made a bark

shed to shelter me from the rain and partially dry my clothing, I had

nothing to do but look and listen and join the trees in their hymns and


Neither the great white heart of the fire nor the quivering

enthusiastic flames shooting aloft like auroral lances could be seen

from the village on account of the trees in front of it and its being

back a little way over the brow of the hill; but the light in the

clouds made a great show, a portentous sign in the stormy heavens

unlike anything ever before seen or heard of in Wrangell. Some wakeful

Indians, happening to see it about midnight, in great alarm aroused the

Collector of Customs and begged him to go to the missionaries and get

them to pray away the frightful omen, and inquired anxiously whether

white men had ever seen anything like that sky-fire, which instead of

being quenched by the rain was burning brighter and brighter. The

Collector said he had heard of such strange fires, and this one he

thought might perhaps be what the white man called a “volcano, or an

_ignis fatuus_.” When Mr. Young was called from his bed to pray, he,

too, confoundedly astonished and at a loss for any sort of explanation,

confessed that he had never seen anything like it in the sky or

anywhere else in such cold wet weather, but that it was probably some

sort of spontaneous combustion “that the white man called St. Elmo’s

fire, or Will-of-the-wisp.” These explanations, though not convincingly

clear, perhaps served to veil their own astonishment and in some

measure to diminish the superstitious fears of the natives; but from

what I heard, the few whites who happened to see the strange light

wondered about as wildly as the Indians.

I have enjoyed thousands of camp-fires in all sorts of weather and

places, warm-hearted, short-flamed, friendly little beauties glowing in

the dark on open spots in high Sierra gardens, daisies and lilies

circled about them, gazing like enchanted children; and large fires in

silver fir forests, with spires of flame towering like the trees about

them, and sending up multitudes of starry sparks to enrich the sky; and

still greater fires on the mountains in winter, changing camp climate

to summer, and making the frosty snow look like beds of white flowers,

and oftentimes mingling their swarms of swift-flying sparks with

falling snow-crystals when the clouds were in bloom. But this Wrangell

camp-fire, my first in Alaska, I shall always remember for its

triumphant storm-defying grandeur, and the wondrous beauty of the

psalm-singing, lichen-painted trees which it brought to light.

 [1] Dr. Sheldon Jackson, 1834-1909, became Superintendent of

 Presbyterian Missions in Alaska in 1877, and United States General

 Agent of Education in 1885. [W. F. B.]

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